The Scat Walk

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Every morning you will find Lucia and I walking around the two cheetah pens Elands and Hogwarts with a blue bag before we go to CCF’s genetics lab. We are not watching the beautiful cheetahs behind the fences but staring constantly on the ground. You might ask yourself what can be so interesting down there.
It is amazing how many tracks you can find every day. When you see us stopping and kneeling down we probably found something. Can you guess what animals belong to these tracks?
Exciting to know what passes close to you at night but not quite what we are looking for (left – brown hyena / right – baboon).

We are looking for a sign of a cheetah and today is a lucky day. All around the fences we can see cheetah tracks.


This is evidence that there was a cheetah around in the past 24 hours. His name is Hifi, a wild cheetah who has visited our Eland girls regularly for 5 years. How do we know that the tracks belong to Hifi? With camera traps placed around this area we can see what passed through here at night.


He looks well fed!
But that is not everything. Last night he left a gift for the girls and this morning we can pick it up. You can see nicely the scratch marks, which is very typical for him also.


Yes I know… In the human world poop hardly would work to impress a woman but scent is an important way of communication for cheetahs.  Unfortunately it doesn’t help him to get one of the females at CCF but it helps us to study the cheetah. Believe it or not there is a lot you can learn from poop.


We label a plastic bag with date, location, GPS coordinates, and comments about the freshness and description and then we carefully put the poop in the bag with a stick. Why are we not making our life easier and using our hands? Apart from the obvious reason that we just don’t want to touch it (believe me when I say that this smell follows you around), it is very important that we don’t contaminate the scat if we want to conduct genetic research on it. Yes I know… I had to laugh a bit too but I don’t have to go into further details when I say that scat is the trash, which comes out of our body for a good reason. You can still get DNA out of it but if you touch it or if one of the scat detection dogs puts his nose on it (at least it smells good for somebody), it is possible that all you get is human or dog DNA in the results.


With fresh scat like in this picture we can give an aliquot to the clinic to check for parasites, and with any sample regardless of age we can do hair analysis to study the diet of the animal.


So now we know from the lab not only that it was a cheetah but also that it was Hifi. How that works in detail is another story to be told. From the clinic, we know that he is healthy and what he ate. For a future hormone study we keep enough until we get funding.  Hopefully that will be soon. With that, we will be able to look at stress and testosterone level.


If anything is left we can use it to train our scat detection dogs to find more poop for more studies.

It is amazing how much you can learn about the behaviour and health of an animal just with a little bit of scat, a camera, tracks, and somebody who likes to pick it up. Sometimes that is not as easy as it sounds.


I hope you will come and join us soon for a little walk. 


Natalie Giesen
Genetics Laboratory Technician

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